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100,000 LAUSD students have no representative. Here are 5 things to know about Board District 5, vacated by Ref Rodriguez’s resignation

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | August 6, 2018

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Members of District 5’s Family Problem Solving Groups, representing south, southeast, and northeast Los Angeles, present their action plans to district officials on June 21. (Courtesy: LA Unified’s District 5)

Nearly 100,000 Los Angeles students are heading back to school without an elected representative because of the empty LA Unified school board seat in District 5.

The District 5 seat — one of seven in the district, each with its own elected board member — was held by Ref Rodríguez, who pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges on July 23 and had to resign the position. He was elected in 2015; his term would have ended in June 2019.

The remaining six board members have until late September to decide how to fill the seat, which represents students in LA’s southeast and northeast.

LA Unified’s general counsel, David Holmquist, said board members can appoint someone to serve out the remainder of Rodríguez’s term, call for a special election (which would most likely be held in March), or they can do both, appointing someone to serve until an election. The next board meeting is scheduled for Aug. 21, where they might vote on what choice to pursue.

A former board member and at least two elected officials have shown interest in filling the seat before an election can be held. But education advocates are pushing for the community to have a say in the selection of the new representative. The Communities for Los Angeles Student Success (CLASS) coalition, led by United Way of Greater Los Angeles, has called for a special election “as expeditiously as possible” so District’s 5 constituents can directly decide who they want to represent them.

Among the priorities the coalition has laid out for District 5 is to “have a leader who will ensure that funding and policy decisions are made in the best interest of children and families,” according to a statement issued by the coalition the week of Rodríguez’s resignation. “We urge the Board of Education to make an appointment of a qualified, equity-minded individual who can fulfill all the duties and responsibilities of a board representative that the families of Board District 5 require.”

To better understand what the new board member will face, here are five things to know about Board District 5:

  1. The students

District 5 has the second-highest concentration of Latino students, representing almost 89 percent of the student population. Over a quarter of the students are classified as English learners, and 11 percent require special education services. Over 85 percent live in low- income households, and an estimated 2,000 students are homeless.  

District 5 includes the predominantly Latino communities of City Terrace and Highland Park in northeast Los Angeles as well as the cities of Bell, Maywood, Vernon, South Gate, and Huntington Park in southeast Los Angeles.

  1. The schools

Within the boundaries of District 5 are about 180 schools, including 36 independent charters, representing 13 percent of the 276 independent charters in LA Unified. There are 85 elementary schools, 34 middle schools, and 27 high schools, including charters and magnets. The rest are span schools (elementary and middle, middle and high, or elementary through high school), early ed centers, special ed centers, and adult schools.

According to an analysis of state data from District 5 schools, 39 out of 98 elementary, middle schools and span schools, not including charters, were rated in the lowest-performing categories — orange and red — in both English language arts and math on the California School Dashboard. That’s about 27,500 students not meeting academic standards, according to the analysis by Parent Revolution, a nonprofit parent empowerment organization. Only six of those schools — representing about 3,000 students — were proficient in both English and math, meaning they show up in the green category on the dashboard.

  1. The parents

Rodríguez focused on promoting parent empowerment in the district during his term. His office started three Family Problem Solving Groups across Board District 5, where parents were given guidance and tools to come up with a plan to solve the most pressing issues at their neighborhood schools. The groups started meeting in March and presented their plans in late June to district officials and Superintendent Austin Beutner. The plans addressed the issues of chronic absenteeism, school funding, and the reclassification rate for English learners.

According to Board District 5 staff, other priorities for parents in the district included:

  • School choice. Parents find very complicated the process of moving their children from one school to another, either within or outside the district.
  • Immigration fears. Undocumented parents don’t feel safe enough to be involved with their school’s community.
  • Gentrification. Latino parents feel rising housing costs are forcing them to leave their neighborhoods, which then drives down enrollment in the public schools.
  • Responsiveness. Many parents are not finding that their local districts are helpful in solving their issues.

A Board District 5 community representative told LA School Report on Monday that parents have felt a “sense of loss” after Rodriguez’s resignation, at least in the southeast area, where she has worked with parents since he started his term. While she declined to give her name, she said they were well aware of his legal battle, but they were more concerned about going back to times when their representative didn’t listen to their voice.

“They want someone who can continue the work to involve them in the decisions,” the community representative said. “Overall, they are concerned about what next steps are. They have told me they are afraid of going back to the time before him when they had no relationship with their representative. And they would prefer someone they can relate to, a Latino.”

She also said families were pleased that since Rodríguez took office their phone calls where returned and emails answered, either by him or by someone in the office. “They want something as simple as that, a relationship with their representative. They want their voice to continue to be heard.”

  1. Who has held the seat

Before Rodríguez was elected, District 5 had been represented by white school board members for 16 out of 20 years.

Latinos make up 57 percent of the voters in District 5. When Rodríguez beat incumbent Bennett Kayser in 2015, voter turnout in the district was only 12 percent in the primary election.

Before being elected to the board, Rodríguez co-founded PUC Schools, one of LA’s largest charter school organizations. He received financial support from charter organizations and pro-reform advocates during his campaign. Rodríguez — along with board President Mónica García, Vice President Nick Melvoin, and Kelly Gonez — made up a pro-reform board majority. His departure has left the board split 3 to 3 between reformers and those elected with union support: George McKenna, Scott Schmerelson, and Richard Vladovic.

Kayser was a retired LA Unified teacher. He was elected in 2011 to fill the District 5 seat for the four-year term, which he concluded in 2015. He ran for reelection that year but was defeated by Rodríguez. Kayser was supported by the teachers union.

Before Kayser, Yolie Flores, a social worker and children’s advocate, filled the seat from 2007 to 2011 and served as board president for three of those years. She didn’t seek for reelection at the end of her term. Flores was supported by reformers.

Before Flores, David Tokofsky, a former teacher and union member, was elected to the board in June 1995 with the support of the teachers union and served for three terms, for a total of 12 years.  According to the LA Times, he didn’t seek reelection in 2006 because of his discontent with then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s education reform efforts, including his attempt to take over the school district. He is a consultant for the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA), the school administrators’ union, and a frequent public speaker at LA Unified board meetings.

  1. Who is interested in the seat

Local elected officials have shown interest in representing District 5.

Huntington Park Councilwoman Graciela Ortíz announced in July that she plans to become a candidate for the position.

In 2016, while she was the city’s mayor, as well as a school counselor at Linda Esperanza Marquez High School and a member of the teachers union, she voted in favor of banning new charters in the city. Huntington Park has 10 charters within District 5 boundaries.

Nestor Valencia, a council member of the neighboring city of Bell, told La Opinión that he is interested in running for the seat. “My children attend public schools, so I’d hold all (LAUSD’s) public schools, including charter schools, accountable and also the new superintendent, the same way I’ve served in Bell.”

Jackie Goldberg, a former LA Unified board member and state assemblywoman, told L.A. Weekly she is interested in filling the seat, at least temporarily, but she would not serve beyond the remainder of Rodriguez’s term. “I am seeking the appointment but would not run for either a special election or in 2020,” Goldberg said.

Last week, the Los Feliz Ledger reported that Los Angeles Board of Public Works vice president Heather Repenning is “strongly considering” a run.

It also mentioned that Nadia Díaz Funn, executive director of the Latino advocacy organization Alliance for a Better Community, might run. But Díaz Funn told LA School Report at a welcome reception Friday for Superintendent Austin Beutner hosted by her organization that she is not interested in the position.


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